BEDWELL: Louisiana Can’t Continue With A 50K Jury Trial Threshold

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Phillip Bedwell, Republican candidate for House District 75 – a seat currently held by Democrat Melinda White.

The old adage of having to eat an elephant one bite at the time can certainly be applied to the dismal economic status of Louisiana.  This is LA, not Oz, and there ain’t no pair of ruby slippers that we can click.  There are a wide variety of bites; taxes, education, infrastructure, and many others.

One bite we have to swallow is the jury threshold amount for civil cases.  Article 1732 of the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure states “A trial by jury shall not be available in: (1) A suit where the amount of no individual petitioner’s cause of action exceeds fifty thousand dollars…”  How ridiculous is this $50,000 threshold?  It is the HIGHEST in the nation.  The next highest state is at $15,000!  36 states have a zero threshold.

My belief that our current law needs changing is not based on whim but on what I believe is a concurrence with our Founding Fathers and the importance they put on juries.  It is interesting that Article 3 of the United States Constitution (Constitution) only mentions the jury in relation to criminal trials.

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights.  Juries are mentioned in 3 of the 10 amendments.  Amendment 5 concerns the grand jury and Amendment 6 the criminal jury.  Our Founding Fathers realized that in order to protect citizens from unfair treatment civil matters deserved attention on par with criminal cases.  When James Madison wrote the proposed amendments he addressed the issue in Amendment 7:  “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved….”

In a 1789 letter Thomas Jefferson expressed his ideas about judges and juries:

With respect to the value of this institution (juries) I must make a general observation…. In the form of JURIES therefore they determine all matters of fact, leaving to the permanent judges to decide the law resulting from those facts. But we all know that        permanent judges acquire an Esprit de corps, that being known they are liable to be tempted by bribery, that they are misled by favor, by relationship, by a spirit of party, by a devotion to the Executive or Legislative; that it is better to leave a cause to the decision of cross and pile (a gambling game using coins – similar to heads or tails), than to     that of a judge biased to one side; and that the opinion of 12 honest jurymen gives still a better hope of right, than cross and pile does. It is left therefore to the juries, if they think the permanent judges are under any bias whatever in any cause, to take upon themselves  to judge the law as well as the fact….  Were I called upon to decide whether the people had best be omitted in the Legislative or Judiciary department, I would say it is better to leave them out of the Legislative. The execution of the laws is more important than the making them….

Did you wonder like I did what would $20 in 1789 be today?  Approximately $570.00.

If $570 was good enough for our Founding Fathers, who can argue with a pure heart that our state legislators and judiciary are almost 10 times smarter when they established the $50,000 limit?

What amount should we use – $20?  $570?  $1,000?  I think a logical argument could be made for any amount under $5,000 without thumbing our noses at the Founding Fathers.

How does changing the threshold help our state?  A reasonable threshold will lead to lower automobile insurance rates (currently Louisiana rates are the second highest in the nation); we will no longer be considered a legal hellhole by businesses and that will lead to more jobs; and, trial lawyers will no longer be able to shop around for a judge of their choosing.  I could list more but that is a good start.

Another bite at this particular part of the elephant would be to consider ‘loser pays’ if the jury thinks it appropriate.  Imagine the indigestion that bite would cause when the trial attorneys have their meetings!

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